HTTPS vs HTTP: What’s the Difference?
HTTPS and HTTP are the same protocol. The main difference is that the HTTPS protocol has an added layer of encryption (SSL/TLS). HTTP sites change to HTTPS by gaining an SSL certificate (sometimes called a security or digital certificate). An SSL certificate is a small data file that protects the transfer of sensitive data between the web browser and the web server.
The SSL certificate encrypts this data by making it unreadable during the transmission process. It contains a public key that allows users to send sensitive information from their web browser securely. The domain owner has a private key that decrypts this information once it reaches the server. This public-private key pairing ensures a secure connection.
For a domain to become HTTPS-enabled, it must be issued with an SSL certificate from a trusted Certificate Authority (CA). When a web browser attempts to connect with a server through HTTPS, it checks that the SSL certificate matches the domain name the user is trying to enter through a process called an SSL/TLS handshake.
The certificate contains a digital signature from the CA to verify that the certificate was issued to the specified domain name. Once the web browser verifies the certificate’s signature to establish trust with the server, the connection becomes secure. All trusted CAs are automatically recognized by browsers.
However, HTTP connections are not secure, especially when made over public Wi-Fi networks. Anyone can easily intercept communications on the network using freely accessible software. As HTTP does not use SSL certificates, any information the web browser transmits to the web server is available in unencrypted plain text. HTTP also cannot verify a domain owner’s authenticity as it does not have a validation process.
Why Use HTTPS?
HTTPS is now the preferred protocol for all activity on the Web, as it is the safest way for users to protect sensitive information.
HTTPS is not just crucial for websites that request user information. Aside from information sent directly from users, attackers can also track behavioral and identification data from unsecured connections. HTTP has benefits to site owners other than data security, including improved web functionality and user experience.
HTTPS establishes trust from website users, allowing them to double-check the domain name against the SSL Certificate. As the protocol encrypts all client-server communications through SSL/TLS authentication, attackers cannot intercept data, meaning users can safely enter their personal information.
Gaining user trust is especially important for online businesses, such as e-commerce stores. Potential customers need assurance that their payment details will not be compromised. Website owners without HTTPS are not only risking their customers’ privacy but also their own reputations. Attackers can easily access customer information through unsecured connections. Such a breach could deter users from future transactions with the business due to lost trust.
As HTTPS widely stands as the gold standard protocol, web browsers have been prompt to take note. For example, Google Chrome flags HTTP websites, and Mozilla Firefox now offers “HTTPS-only mode”. Google’s search engine algorithm also penalizes HTTP websites in its results in favor of HTTPS pages. Site owners can therefore improve their SEO by switching to HTTPS.
The release of HTTP/2 (a revision of the protocol) in 2015 saw browsers further prioritize HTTPS over HTTP. HTTP/2 allows for faster web browsing and improved user experience through a range of new features. Most browsers now only allow the use of HTTP/2 on web pages that use HTTPS. This update forces HTTP site owners to transition if they want to take advantage of these features.
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